Surviving A Nuclear Blast: A Brief Cold War Lesson

I entered the Army in 1981. At the time, we perceived the Soviet Union to be the greatest threat to our survival. The Cold War had been going on for nearly 35 years with no end in sight. One obvious feature of the contest between us and the Sovs, as we called them, was the potential for nuclear war. More than a few movies were made about the possibility and effects of such a war, and man-made Armageddon was never far from the minds of policy-makers on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Naturally, the concept arose from time to time in our training which combined how to react to the big three: nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare - NBC training in the Army's endless array of acronyms.

I'll admit that it has been a long time since I was taught how to survive a nuclear blast, but the basics have stayed with me in the more than 34 years since I finished Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The first part of the training consisted of recognizing a tremendous flash for what it was - a nuclear explosion - and reacting instantly to that flash. We were taught to immediately lie face down on the ground, completely covering our M16s with our bodies. I think the idea was that survivors, if there were any, could pick our radiation-soaked corpses off the salvaged M16s which could then be generously donated to whatever was left of humanity. Once face down and protecting our weapons we were told to count "flash-to-bang-time" to get some idea of how far we were from the epicenter of the blast. "Bang" is a nice little word. I doubt it does an exploding hydrogen bomb justice, but it'll have to do. We were told to continue to stay face down after having counted (one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.) and to expect a wave of debris to pass over us as the shock from the explosion pushed buildings, cars, cows, cities, and whatever, our way. We were next warned not to stand up even if the debris had stopped flying overhead. I gather that your standard nuclear explosion creates some sort of hellacious vacuum, and all the debris that just passed over our M16-saving selves was about to head back for the blast site. If we stood up too early we'd get clobbered by that second wave, or so we were told.

If you survived all of that, the last thing we were trained to do was to, and I'm quoting directly here, "remain calm; continue mission." Right. . . like either of those two commands had any chance of being obeyed. "Hey, was that a hydrogen bomb explosion we just just survived, Sarge?" "Calm down, soldier. We've got a mission to complete!" "Uh . . . hey, Sarge. Since the world's got about another 20 minutes before it's gone, how about if we just take the rest of the day off?" At least that's how I imagined it would go.

As you know, worse has yet to come to worse, and my nuclear blast survival training has never been put to the test. That doesn't mean that we're out of the woods yet. The world's full of lots of kooks with lots of nukes, as they say. But at least now you know, thanks to this short blog entry, how to survive if the unthinkable ever becomes reality. You're welcome.